Vocal exercises are necessary to protect vocal cords, loosen vocal folds, and protect the voice from the physical demands of singing. Keep reading for the best vocal warmups and cooldowns to help you sing your best without damaging your vocal cords.
Just as a dancer does physical stretches before and after they move, vocal performers need to warm up before extended (or critical) voice use to ensure vocal muscles are supple, prepared for precision, and not subject to strain. Vocal warmups should:
- Warm up your body: Singing is created through the abdominal, back, and neck muscles. Warming these muscles up allows sound to travel up and out without getting trapped by tension.
- Prepare your breath: Breathing exercises engage the respiratory and intercostal muscles so you can sustain longer notes.
- Prepare your articulators and resonators: Your lips, teeth, and tongue all help with articulation, while the soft palate creates resonation. Warming these zones up allows for clearer, richer vocals.
- Take you from spoken to singing register: Changing pitch and projecting your voice puts stress on vocal muscles. Doing vocalizing exercises (i.e., wordless vowel sound exercises) eases the way from the smaller range of the spoken register to the larger range of the singing register.
- Prepare you for performance: A brief review of the material you’re singing helps prepare you mentally and physically for the performance. While you don’t necessarily need to include your performance material in your warmup, it’s helpful to try and hit notes of similar duration and pitch.
A vocal warmup should take 15–20 minutes. A well-conditioned singer with years of vocal training likely only needs 15 minutes to warm up. If you’re a newer singer, or if your performance is early in the day and you haven’t spoken much yet, take an extra five minutes to ensure you cover the full range of breathing, voicing, resonance, and articulation exercises.
It’s best to start warmups less than 30 minutes before you sing to reap the highest benefits. If a lapse of more than 20 minutes passes between the warmup and your performance, run through an abbreviated version of the exercises again.
Do these warmup exercises step-by-step to gradually warm up your muscles and prepare your voice for your best singing performance.
Physical stretching of the upper torso helps open the thoracic cavity (that is, the chest cavity), expand lower rib cage movement, and strengthen the flexibility of inhalation and exhalation—meaning increased ability to hold long notes. To stretch the upper torso, arch the left arm up and over, reaching above your head toward your right side. Breathe slowly and deeply, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract as you breathe in and out. Change sides and repeat. Now bring your arms out palms up, with your shoulders down, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract with each breath cycle (purse your lips for respiratory drive). Keep your upper thoracic cavity stable and work your core support muscles.
2. Sharp exhales
Take a deep breath in and then exhale sharply and quickly on “p” (unvoiced “puh”) 50 times; feel those muscles get ready for action. If you can’t make it to 50 on a single breath, take a second long inhale when you hit 25 sharp exhales. You can follow the 50 “puh” exhales with a similar set of 45 seconds of unvoiced quick “la” exhales.
Next, warm up your filter—the top of the larynx, pharynx, mouth, and nose that controls vocal tone, timbre, and texture. Exaggerate the diphthongs, or the vowel changes, and pitches in “how now brown cow?” Avoid wide oral openings and seek to have great intraoral space (think Julia Child). Now, recite your favorite Shakespearean sonnet, which are great tongue twisters requiring pitch, range of motion, and good breath control. Make sure you can feel the sonnet resonating in your mouth and skull. The lips and tongue tip should bounce around the wonderful noises of those consonants. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, try repeating “unique New York” numerous times, changing your pitch throughout the phrase repetitions.
The vocal folds now need to be warmed up using a variety of pitches, loudness levels, and registers. Vocal slides with increasing intervals should precede any triad intervals or vocal acrobatics. Some singers have better success starting with the “oo” vowel while others prefer the “ee” or “ah” vowel. In general, the vowel “ee” works well for low and mid-range pitches, but it can be strained for higher pitches (especially if the lips spread for the vowel). The sounds “oo” and “oh” often work well for the mid and higher. They also help stretch the pharyngeal region, letting you access higher pitches.
Vocal flexibility exercises should be next. These gradually exchange the necessary tension of the lower pitch muscle (thyroarytenoid muscle) with those needed for higher pitches (cricothyroid muscle), which lets you hit those high notes. Altering note loudness also warms up your ability to change the vocal fold’s edge contour, which reduces fatigue and helps register coordination. Here’s a tip:
Use a quick diminuendo (go from louder to softer) on the last note just before a much higher note. The diminuendo will thin the vocal fold edge, making it easier to start the high note. Then go ahead and do a quick crescendo (go from softer to louder) on the high note.
6. Lip flutters
Lip flutters (“raspberries”), rolling the “r,” and singing “oo” into a five millimeter drinking straw—especially if the straw is submerged in about two inches of water—help balance the subsystems of your voice. These exercises support your voice by reducing resistance demands on the delicate vocal folds.
7. Fake yawns
Keeping your mouth closed, pretend that you’re yawning to engage and loosen the jaw. This will help your jaw drop before the performance, which allows access to a wider range of sound.
If you fail to cool down, lactic acid can pool in the muscles, which makes post-performance injury more likely. The cooldown focuses on bringing the vocal folds back down to the speaking register. It’s especially important if the final song is aggressive, loud, or uses long high notes.
These cooldowns only need to take about two to three minutes. They should be done within five minutes of the final song to help ease your voice back into the speaking register.
Cool down your vocal muscles in this order to slowly return your voice to its usual sound.
1. Descending slides
Lip flutters and descending five-note slides (“oh” to “ah”) with a little trill on the lowest note can be a great cooldown for the delicate vocal folds. Take the slides down as low as you can to help transition from your singing voice range to your speaking voice range.
2. Keep vocalizing
Then, count from 1 to 20, keeping the voice flexible in pitch, loudness, rate, and pauses. Sudden cessation of voice use can leave it high and dry. Cool those jets down by slowly lowering vocal intensity.
Gently lubricate your vocal cords by sipping water after a singing session
4. Be gentle
Sudden bursts of sound can cause trauma to the vocal folds, so try to start your laugh with some gentle breath pulses, which sets up support (and makes others think that you find something really funny).
5. Try silence
If you experience a sudden change in voice quality or vocal range, stop all voice use and see a qualified laryngologist to make sure you haven’t injured the edge of the vocal fold. This is particularly important with more aggressive voice tasks, or when your core support may be compromised due to illness or cramping. With heavy voice use, it may take several days for the voice to recover.
Now that you’ve spent the necessary time and effort on vocal exercises, have fun with your voice. Your body will appreciate it—and so will your listeners.
Medical advice disclaimer: Content in this article is provided for informational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.